Friday, February 6, 2009
Heaven Forfend! They're Remaking Slap Shot
It’s funny. I watched Slap Shot over the summer and at the time it occurred to me that if the NHL brass were smart (which they are not), they would commission a remake of Slap Shot. The NHL barely hangs on to its status as a top 4 sport and the only time the league enters the national conversation is when someone nearly gets killed on the ice. Historically, the only time hockey has really entered the cultural zeitgeist was when Team USA took gold in Lake Placid in 1980 and when Slap Shot burst onto movie screens across the country in 1977. Not that I’m advocating for a remake of a classic sport’s film, but lets face it, the only people who still care about Slap Shot are hockey fans or people no younger than 42. The youth of today don’t know from Slap Shot. From a marketing perspective, it would be a good idea to remake the one movie that might bolster interest in the sport. Right?
Well, now someone is doing it. Will this be a good thing? Probably not. It rarely pays to tamper with a classic. When I watched the movie this summer it occurred to me that if the film were made today it would be transformed for the worst.
If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s set in a failing, Midwest industrial city in the 70s (read Pittsburgh, Cleveland or Detroit). The people of the town have little cheer in their life and their minor league hockey franchise, The Charlestown Chiefs, starring Paul Newman as their player coach, brings them some cheer. But for the most part the team sucks. The team brings in some bespectacled, semi-moronic goons named the Hanson Brothers, who are brawling, idiot-savant hockey players and the team rebounds in a big way with every game devolving into a massive scrum of cheap shots and brass-knuckled brawl fests. The team starts winning and ticket sales soar. But the team’s fate has already been sealed. Because of the failing economy, team owners are planning on shutting the Chiefs down at season’s end. A failing Midwest city with a huge unemployed populous will never make the team a viable business entity. The other major plot point revolves around Newman’s personal life. He’s an aging athlete, semi-lothario, trying to desperately get his ex-wife to reconcile. Mid-life crisis kind of stuff.
As much as the film is a foul-mouthed comedy with heaps of juvenile humor and slapstick hockey fight antics that appeal to the pubescent boy demographic, the film is also infused with that gritty, down and out dourness so pervasive in 70s cinema. A hint of political grim reality mixed with a very adult (not sexy adult, but adult demographic) love story throws a little salt peter on the comedy. In a bizarre way it’s the perfect father/son movie. Undoubtedly the sons were probably bored by the adult relationship mumbo jumbo and political machinations, but couldn’t wait to see the Hansons, the fights, and the bad language. Slap Shot was the kind of movie that made you feel adult if you saw it when you were thirteen. It was an "R" rated movie, but you’d do anything to sneak into the theaters to see it. Comedy tempered by realism is not always a great mix, but seeing something that is clearly verboten is awesome and just heightens the experience.
I hope I’m wrong, but there’s no way in the world the remake is going to be “R” or as dour. I’ve got to imagine this is going to be a no-holds barred "PG-13" comedy aimed straight at the heart of Will Ferrell fans everywhere. How many times is someone going to get hit in the nuts with pucks, sticks, or fists? Place your bets now. Down and out, grim reality won’t be on display, even though we're entering an era of industrial decay similar to that which the Midwest was facing in the mid-70s.
The other thing that maybe a challenge for the filmmakers and the NHL is that in the 70s pro hockey and minor league hockey was riding a wave of on-ice fisticuffs. This was an era when the Broad Street Bullies reigned supreme. This is the era that fueled jokes like “I went to a boxing match and a hockey game broke out.” Har Har. As preposterous as the fighting was, most folks watching the movie then saw some relation to the game as it was played. Well hockey in the ’00s is a different beast. Fighting still exists but it is way down compared to the salad days of the 70s. Will it matter if the movie’s hockey style bares no relation to the on-ice version today? We’ll see.
Finally, I wonder what the NHL will think. Certainly, if the movie is a success, that won’t be a bad thing for the NHL. But the NHL may end up between a rock and a hard place with this one. For years the NHL brass have been very focused on distancing themselves from the goonish brand of hockey played in the 70s. But if there’s one thing that Slap Shot succeeds in doing is glorifying the fighting and violence in the sport. Not sure how pleased The NHL will be if there’s a hit hockey movie out there that reinforces all the old stereotypes of their sport to the casual viewer and potential customer. I mean I can’t imagine they’re gonna take the fighting out of Slap Shot. They wouldn’t dare.